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Clean Air After India’s Lockdown

As India went into the world’s biggest lockdown to combat the deadly coronavirus, trains, planes, automobiles and factories came to a halt. And the skies in some of the most polluted cities on the planet turned blue.

Cities across the country, which was home to 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world last year, are breathing some of the cleanest air after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown, starting March 25. On April 7, only two cities from India figured in the top 20 most polluted places, according to data from IQAir.

“The low AQI and blue skies prove beyond doubt that a lot of the air pollution” is a result of human activity, according to Jyoti Pande Lavakare, co-founder of the Indian environmental organization Care For Air. “Obviously slowing down the economy to such a degree isn’t the ideal way of bringing down air pollution but at least it proves that it can be done, if the intention is there.”

Modi’s unprecedented move to impose the lockdown may have been the only way to enforce social distancing in the densely populated nation of 1.3 billion people, where cases have surpassed 4,900 and experts fear that number could increase dramatically over the next few weeks as testing increases.

The lockdown improved the air quality index to satisfactory levels in nearly 90 percent of the 103 cities monitored by the country’s Central Pollution Control Board on March 29, according to data on the environmental agency’s website. In contrast, about half the cities it monitored in the middle of last month had satisfactory air.

The clean air could aid the country’s battle against the virus as air pollution makes people more vulnerable to lung disease. The World Health Organization estimates that dirty air kills 7 million people globally primarily through increased mortality from diseases including acute respiratory infections. In India, it’s also leading to a sharp drop in complaints from people with respiratory problems, according to Delhi-based pulmonologist Pankaj Sayal.

“We are now able to treat asthmatic patients with minimum medications,” Sayal said. “Right now, in this season, I’m getting only 20 percent to 30 percent of the calls” he would get earlier.

Still, the clean air has come at a cost and is likely to be short-lived. India is set to focus on getting its factories and businesses going again after the lockdown forced hundreds of thousands to flee cities in a mass exodus unseen since India’s independence in 1947. The economy is poised to shrink this quarter and full-year expansion set to suffer markedly due to the standstill.

“If the economic restart isn’t done mindfully, pollution will come roaring back as industries try and catch up,” Pande Lavakare said. “I expect this winter to be worse than usual,” as there could be a temptation to relax emission norms to revive the economy.

The haze that shrouds India’s capital for much of the year has become a symbol of the South Asian nation’s struggle to contain toxic air. Emissions from millions of vehicles, industries and coal-burning power plants are some of the main contributors to pollution as the country prioritizes growth to pull millions out of poverty. Pollution intensifies from fall onward as rice farmers burn the stubble of the harvested crop and lower temperatures trap the pollutants.

“This lockdown is uncomfortable, and no country would have wanted it,” but it’s giving data on how air quality and health indices change before and after the lockdown, Sayal said. There is economic disaster but it also “improves the quality of life because the air has become better. Delhi’s air breathes like a mountain air after the rains now.”

Separately, a U.S. Energy Department projection on Tuesday pointed to a similar trend. Despite mocking the idea of climate change, President Donald Trump will preside over one of the country’s sharpest drops in climate-damaging emissions on record, the department said.

The agency’s Energy Information Administration projects a 7.5 percent drop in fossil fuel emissions for 2020. That would be the biggest cut in U.S. energy emissions since at least 1990, EIA records show. The year after the start of the 2008 recession saw a 7.3 percent decline.

Trump routinely mocks the science of climate change, and his administration has moved to roll back tougher mileage and emissions standards and other climate efforts from the Obama administration.

Emissions will fall markedly this year anyway, owing to the slowing economy and restrictions on business and travel related to the coronavirus, the EIA said.

Burning of fossil fuels, and the rate of climate damage, typically rebounds as an economy does, after economic downturns.

Globally, “we’re seeing radical declines in transportation emissions and drops in other sectors of the economy,” said Stanford University’s Rob Jackson, who heads a group of independent scientists who monitor global carbon pollution. “We haven’t seen anything like this since the Great Depression.”

The energy agency projects Americans will burn 9 percent less gasoline and diesel and 10 percent less jet fuel, and that the electricity sector will generate 3 percent less power overall, among other declines. Solar and wind power — which get scant attention from Trump, other than his statements of loathing for wind turbines — will account for the majority of the country’s new electricity generation, the report says. As marketplace competition reshapes how Americans get their energy, power plants will use 11 percent more renewables and 20 percent less coal this year.

The 2020 outlook also marks a setback in Trump’s frequently stated mission of helping make the United States the world’s dominant player in energy production. The coronavirus and an unrelated petroleum supply glut caused by ramped-up pumping by Saudi Arabia and Russia will return the United States to being a net importer of petroleum for at least a time, as domestic drilling subsides, the EIA report said. Any global accord to cut back oil production could change that, the agency noted.

“These trends are only temporary and they’ll go away as fast as this coronavirus crisis goes away,” Energy spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in a statement.

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